Book Review: Very, Very, Very Dreadful

Very, Very, Very Dreadful:  The Influenza Pandemic Of 1918, by Albert Marrin

Reading a book like this, and I have read at least a few [1], is a frustrating but also enlightening experience.  As someone who is familiar with the course of the flu pandemic of 1918, it certainly provides a useful contrast to this year’s course of events as well as a standard by which we may judge the state of public health and how it has not greatly advanced during that time as well.  While a pandemic is going on, there are few ways that we have of understanding the precise nature of disease etiology, and we have only a limited means of reducing risk.  Given the fact that some risk factors–like keeping plague vectors like pigs around and Chinese wet markets and their poor hygiene, appear to be hopelessly entangled with our contemporary existence, the risk of such diseases is always among us, and this book is somewhat pessimistic about the threat that exists from future pandemics even given the insight that we have as a result of our study of previous disease outbreaks.  Even when we know what we could do better we often refuse to do better because it would require too great a change in habits that the Bible condemns anyway regarding clean and unclean meats and principles of cleanliness.

This book is a relatively easy one to read at just over 150 pages.  The book begins with a prologue that sets the historical contrast of one of history’s greatest plagues.  After that the author discusses the pitiless war whose conditions both political and material led to the massive spread of the flu in a vulnerable population around the world (1).  There is then a look at the diseases of war and how the first wave strongly affected both the Allied and Central Powers on the Western front and even the neutrals, one of whom unfortunately got the disease named after it in error (2).  The author discusses the massive failures of science and medicine and politics in the face of the second wave of the flu around the world and the blame game that was used to cope with its horrors (3).  The author looks at fear and panic and the way that the flu of 1918 shaped American society (4).  Then the author discusses the bitter end of the disease and the way it made its way around the world with disastrous results (5), before closing with a detective story about how the disease was isolated and how contemporary scientists have endangered public health through reckless publishing and creation of new flu variants (6), after which there are notes, suggestions for further reading, picture credits, and an index.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  In reading this book there was an eerie sense of foreboding as one realizes that the book contains active warnings of health threats and points out at least some of the classic means by which governments and authorities around the world have dealt with public health crises with extremely limited success and contemporary failure.  The combination of the desire of authorities to grab more power for itself through exploiting crises, the lack of competence in authorities of solving the mystery of diseases until long after the fact, and the lack of honesty that various sorts of authorities (including doctors) have in humbly admitting their own lack of knowledge and skill in dealing with various problems tends to make these particular problems a huge disaster.  It is also possible that the lack of honesty and the grasping of power by the Democrats led in part to the electoral majorities that Republicans had from 1920 for the next decade or so, which is something that is well worth taking into account as well in the near future as we examine the fallout of our own times.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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